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Gardening in the Dead of Winter
by Damian Fagan

Gardening in winter is one of my favorite pastimes. I don’t mean the digging and planting part of it, but the planning stage. That would explain the plethora of mail-order seed and flower catalogs that blossom in my mailbox like early daffodils.

January has been proclaimed ‘National Mail-order Gardening Month’ by the Mail-order Gardening Association (MGA). This proclamation hints at the popularity of ordering-by-phone garden products on winter days. According to market research by the MGA, in 2005 more than 24 million American households will spend an average of $128 on gardening supplies. That totals a whopping $3.07 billion dollar industry. Whoever planted those seeds is about to reap some bounty.

I will honestly admit to leafing through these catalogs, but it is more to cultivate ideas than to place an order. Though I would rather be out skiing in the La Sals or ice skating in the Sloughs (or maybe even working), there are days when a second cup of java and a stack of these catalogs occupy my time. I try to log it as “work time”, as I plan the possibilities of enjoyment and employment through my home garden.

That may seem like an odd connection, but I use my flowerbeds and vegetable patches as sources of photography and inspiration for articles. I have sold numerous pictures of flowers, vegetables, insects, birds, toads, and snakes that have graced my gardens. I’ve enjoyed flights of butterflies, singing birds, croaking toads, and many a meal of salads and vegetables. Since my yard is so small, a little planning can go a long way.

So as I flip through the pages of these catalogs, I make some notes or turn down the corner of a page as a bookmark. Most of the catalogs are for either native Southwest species or plants that can withstand the xeric conditions of this environment. Though we water our garden, we do so sparingly. Adding amendments and compost to the soil helps in the water-saving department, as well as does proper placement.

Shade tolerant species adapted to understory conditions or minimal light exposure, do not go out into the full sun sections of the gardens. And vice versa. I attempt to mimic natural growing conditions, using a system of layering that incorporates trees, shrubs and forbs. Not only does this maximize our small space, but also provides different habitat niches that wild creatures occupy. For it is that wildlife that adds the final dimension to the garden.

But back to the catalogs. As my list grows I include information about watering and sun requirements, and whether or not the plant is butterfly or hummingbird friendly. With butterflies in mind I try to select some plants that are host species for caterpillars since these larval forms often have different food preferences than the adults. I don’t look at these herbivores as “pests” even though they’ll be consuming my plants, but more as temporary guests that I’ve decided to host. Even the tomato hornworms that might descend upon my Romas or Beefstakes will transform from their “ugly duckling” phase into a beautiful sphinx moth.

So armed with all this information, the selection process continues. I check our stash of seeds – leftovers from last year and seed that I collected last year and placed in cold storage. No sense buying more coneflower seeds when I can use last year’s seed crop. Of course, some seeds will not be viable or germination rates will be low. As winter progresses into spring, I’ll know better about my seedling success. Until then, I trust that some of the seeds will sprout.

Next up on my list is to check local sources. Though mail-order prices may be lower than the local nurseries, I have had success in buying locally. Not only do I like the concept of keeping my friends in business, but if plants die or conditions are right for planting (like if I’m leaving tomorrow) then working with local nurseries is easier for replacements or available stock. Any business can post a nice image on their web site, but sometimes the shipped plant does not appear quite as healthy as the one in the photo.

Another factor is that I can purchase plants with floral buds or blooms if I want or need some instant color. Sometimes I don’t get around to planting in the fall, so this process fits my fickleness. Plus, what better inspiration is there than walking through a garden nursery when plants are in full bloom?

Finally, after all my local purchases are done, I see what is left on my list. Most times this constitutes only vegetable seeds because no one carried the varieties I like. Even though I lower the national average on mail-order purchases of garden supplies, I have to be counted as one of those 24 million people leafing through catalogs on cold, January days. Besides, celebrating Snowplow Mailbox Hockey Day is just too hard on the truck.




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